Dialogue (or dialog) is a vital part of most works of fiction. Rare is the work that can be engaging without it. Many writers have experimented with creating stories that are either completely devoid of dialogue or composed only of it, but in the end, most of us write stories that contain the common format of alternating descriptive paragraphs and conversation. That being said, clarity in your dialogue is necessary for your reader to fully enjoy your writing.
The fundamental building block of dialogue is the quote. What is your character saying? How do you let your reader know what is being said? The obvious answer is that words spoken by a character in your story are enclosed in quotations marks. For example:
“I hate diaries,” said Ginny.
Simple, right? However, closer examination reveals that there is a lot going on in that one example. First of all, the words spoken are enclosed in double quotation marks as opposed to single quotation marks. One should also note that the sentence spoken by the character ends in a comma, instead of the customary period or full stop. Finally, the quote is followed by a dialogue tag (said Ginny). These appear to be mundane details, but we will discuss each of these issues more thoroughly below.
Use of Quotation Marks:
The example above made use of double quotation marks, which agrees with the American standard. In my UK versions of the Harry Potter novels, conversation is punctuated slightly differently. These differences will not be discussed here as it is beyond the scope of the this particular essay, but they will be explored in an upcoming one on Brit-picking. The remainder of this article continues to follow the American standard, not out of ignorance or misguided prejudice, but for the simple fact that the majority of SIYE users are more familiar with it.
End Punctuation Inside the Quote:
Ironically, the most common pieces of dialogue, spoken statements, are the only ones in which the basic end punctuation, the period or full stop, is replaced (by a comma) when followed by a dialogue tag. Notice the difference in the end punctuation of the quoted statements in the following two examples:
What you should have picked up was that in the first example the punctuation after the word “sausages” is a comma, while the punctuation after the word “you” is a period or full stop.
Moving on, unlike regular statements, end punctuation for questions and exclamations are not replaced by commas when the quote comes before the dialogue tag. However, if the tag is first, a comma is placed after it, before the quote.
Examples of questions:
Examples of exclamations:
Similarly, end punctuation for unfinished statements follow the same logic as questions and exclamations. Let’s first look at interrupted dialogue.
Unfinished sentences follow the same protocol:
Dialogue and paragraphs:
Simply put, when writing a conversation, a new paragraph should be started when the speaker changes. Many thanks to jezzjamer, one of our Beta readers, for providing the following example:
This is how itshould read though:
But what about dialogue from a character that spans more than one paragraph? Does anything change? As a matter of fact, something does change. Below is an example of properly punctuated dialogue from a single character. Note that at the end of the first paragraph, the closing quotation marks are omitted, but the beginning of the next paragraph still begins with starting quotation marks. And, of course, when the quote is finally completed, the closing quotation marks are there to indicate it as such.
“That’s impossible,” said Hermione taking the apple from George. “Everyone knows you can’t violate Gamp's Law of Elemental Transfiguration, which has five Principal Exceptions, of which food is one, which means that food cannot be produced out of thin air.
“Food can be moved from one place to another by magic, or changed, but not created out of nothing. Therefore, you must have come up with some other ingenious way of producing this apple, and just making it appear as if you conjured it.”
“You’re too clever for your own good,” said George with a scowl.
Finally, some tips on dialogue tags. Many beginning authors feel compelled to use more grandiose speaking verbs than the simplest option, the word “said.” I will confess to being guilty of this too, and have made a conscious effort to minimize this practice. The reason for this is that it distracts the reader from the actual conversation. Instead of focussing on what the character is saying, the reader is being overwhelmed with bellowing, shouting, crying, squeaking, hissing, or what have you. In contrast, the word “said” is invisible; the reader will skim over it, allowing the characters’ voices to stand out. Save the use of the more forceful speaking verbs for when they are really needed.
Related to the first point on dialogue tags is the use of non-speaking words in tags. For example:
The above example would be better written as:
Notice in this example that the corrected version does not actually have a speaking verb attributed to Snape. Yet, the reader knows who said what. The point here is that when a conversation scene only contains two characters, it is not necessary to include a dialogue tag for every single quote.
As with all essays posted in SIYE’s WET&R area, one should not expect to be an expert in dialogue simply from reading this essay. However, at the very least, this essay can act as a quick reference to aid you when you are unsure as to how to properly write parts of a conversation. The added clarity to your writing will ease the mental burden on your readers and should enhance their enjoyment of the story. Good luck!